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Vetting SuperFreakonomics--again

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 3, 2010 04:03 PM

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Kaiser Fung, a professional statistician, provides a diary of sorts of his reactions as he makes his way through a chapter of "SuperFreakonomics," the bestselling book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner--the "sex chapter," Fung calls it. The results aren't pretty:

p.20 -- was surprised to learn that women used to have shorter life expectancy than men. I have always thought women live longer. This factoid is used to show that throughout history, "women have had it rougher than men" but "women have finally overtaken men in life expectancy". I'm immediately intrigued by when this overtaking occurred. L&D do not give a date so I googled "female longevity": first hit said "it appears that women have out survived men at least since the 1500s, when the first reliable mortality data were kept."; the most recent hit cited CDC data which showed that U.S. females outlived males since 1900, the first year of reporting. In the Notes, L&D cite an 1980 article in the journal Speculum, published by the Medieval Academy. In any case, the cross-over probably occurred prior to any systematic collection of data so I find this minor section less than convincing.

There are 17 more comments along those lines.

Kung then follows up with a similar tough vetting of the chapter about measuring the relative skill of doctors. (Recall that, last November, the Ideas writer Drake Bennett took a skeptical look at the arguments about climate change in "SuperFreakonomics.")

Kung's posts have inspired at least two other statistician-bloggers to ask: What went wrong with the book? Giving the authors the benefit of the doubt, Andrew Gelman, of Statistical Modeling, proposes that Levitt and Dubner are too quick to accept the clever findings of their acquaintances and colleagues. "Trusting friends and experts makes a lot of sense, I think, but if you're not careful it can lead to some silly mistakes," he writes. One of the authors of Observational Epidemiology thinks that's far too charitable. Peer review, even of the quick-and-dirty kind that Fung provides, would have delayed publication of a sure bestseller, watered down punchy assertions, and perhaps required whole sections to be slashed or reworked, he writes. (Or Levitt and Dubner could have kept the flawed sections while knowing that a paper trail existed documenting the flaws.) As it happens, the book sold a bazillion copies and the authors still have a showcase blog at The New York Times. So what's the upside to thoroughness, again?
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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